Faith, Fiction, and Film: Human Experience and Longing for the Divine - St. Bernard's

Faith, Fiction, and Film: Human Experience and Longing for the Divine

Apr 9, 2024

Elena Cambio

In the fall of 2023, I was blessed to be able to audit Faith, Fiction, and Film: The Drama of Belief, a course taught by Dr. Matthew Kuhner through the Discounted Fall Audit Initiative. It was not my first course at St. Bernard’s, but it had been quite some time since I had last taken or audited a course. My hopes for a challenging, engaging class were fulfilled in unexpected ways, ultimately leading me to a personal revelation.

My background includes film writing and production, so I was very keen on the course's film aspect. However, Dr. Kuhner’s thorough syllabus required us to read what I would never have done on my own – a hallmark of true artistic and academic pursuit, taking in artwork and perspectives to which one normally has limited access or would not think of engaging.

In reading authors such as Flannery O’Connor, Georges Bernanos, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, I realized that I had unnecessarily limited my own experience of literature, film, and art in my attempts to avoid the “unpleasant.” Dr. Kuhner can be credited with winning me over to Flannery O’Connor and her assertion that in order to effectively present conversion and salvation in a literary form, we must also enter into the human experience in all its messiness and incomplete “sanctification-in-progress.”

The same can certainly be said of film generally, which is a visual mode of storytelling rather than the printed word. The first of the two films we screened in class was “Babette’s Feast,” a rich and layered treatment of the sacramental nature of human love. The highly symbolic and sacramental elements of the film worked together to affirm truth, beauty, and goodness as aspects of God’s love for us.

The other film we screened, “A Hidden Life,” presented Blessed Franz Jagerstatter’s life and martyrdom in Nazi-controlled Austria. The depths of Jagerstatter’s world in Austria pointed to the transcendence of nature and the family, which comprised his connection to God that strengthened his resolve in the face of evil and the temptation to “go along to get along.”

These two films were incredibly different in story and style, yet together they affirmed that to be successful, filmic storytelling must present us with the fullness of human experience, not skirting around our suffering or our very imperfect response to grace – again echoing Flannery O’Connor’s thesis. Directorial style, story, characters, system of motifs, color palette, lighting, editorial decisions, dialogue, and performances naturally will be unique to every film, but they must all work together to express some truth grounded in our shared lived experience. Without it, a film will fail to engage the best parts of ourselves as viewers and as humans, no matter how big the budget, the hype, or the visual effects.

The Faith, Fiction, and Film course did not stop with this recognition, however, as important as it is to storytelling. Dr. Kuhner drove home within our lively conversations and in our readings the importance of art and storytelling in the work of evangelization, as described by Pope Saint John Paul II and others such as Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. Indeed, literature, art, and film in their highest forms must lead us to an experience of truth: the truth of the human longing for transcendence – for God – through the experience of beauty and goodness.

By applying this hermeneutic to a genre of film I particularly enjoy, science fiction, I have found new depths to explore in such films as “Arrival” (2016), “Contact” (1997), “Blade Runner” (1982), and even “The Hunger Games” trilogy (2012 – 2015). These stories follow characters through hardships and suffering to the affirmation of the dignity and importance of every human life, the immensity and created beauty of the universe, and the power of love to overcome monstrous evil. These stories, of course, are not to be equated with the gospel of Jesus Christ, but as they engage readers and viewers, do they not predispose us to receiving that gospel? After all, seeking common ground – the truths we can agree upon – is quite often the first stage toward recognizing in the Triune God the fulfillment of all human desires and needs.

Yet for this stage of evangelization to be successful, it must resonate as true. It must reflect the human experience and longing for the divine, even in the worlds of the fantastical like that of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or the historical West, such as in “Dances with Wolves” (1990). Therein lies our connection with each other and our ability to be open to the movements of grace through the vocation of the artist.

The greatest benefit for me in taking this course was being confirmed in my vocation as a writer and filmmaker, to be emboldened in that path with all the responsibility and joy (and hair-pulling heartache) that comes with it. I am deeply grateful not only to Dr. Kuhner, but to my classmates as well for their reflections, candor, and shared insights into art, evangelization, and the human condition.

Elena Cambio is a staff writer with the Catholic Courier in Rochester, NY, and is also a fiction writer and independent filmmaker. Her current short film “Dream House” is in post-production, and she is in pre-production for a documentary film that will follow her pilgrimage to the holy places of the Catholic martyrs of Korea. In 2023, her short story “Vinny and Luca” appeared in the June issue of Lake Affect Magazine. Elena has taught screenwriting, ESL, academic writing, literature, and religion in a variety of educational contexts, as well as teaching EFL in S. Korea and P.R.China. Having discerned out of Carmel, she has happily accepted her vocation as a single person pursuing creative work in evangelization. Elena holds an MFA in Imaging Arts from R.I.T., an MA in Linguistics from Ohio University, and a Certificate in Catechetical Leadership with St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.